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Who Are the Hebrews?

Who Are the Hebrews?


The first person to be called a Hebrew was Abraham,1 and the name commonly refers to his descendants, known as the Jewish people. The word for Hebrew used in the Bible is עברי (pronounced "Ivri"), meaning "of or pertaining to עבר-ever." So what does "ever" mean?

The Midrash2 quotes three opinions as to where this name comes from:

  1. Rabbi Yehuda taught that the word "ever" means "opposite side." Abraham believed in one G‑d, and the rest of the world worshipped man-made gods. Thus, "Abraham stood on one side, and the entire world stood on the other side."
  2. Rabbi Nechemiah opined that it is a reference to Ever, great-great-grandson of Noah (usually Anglicized as "Eber"), ancestor of Abraham. Eber was one of the bearers of the monotheistic tradition which he had learned from his ancestors Shem and Noah and passed on to his grandson Abraham. Since Abraham was a descendant and disciple of his, he is called an Ivri.
  3. The rabbis held that the word is a reference to the fact that Abraham came from the other side of the river and was not a native Canaanite. "Ivri" also refers to the fact that Abraham spoke the Hebrew language—thus named because of its ancient origins, preceding the development of the other languages current at that time.3

So Hebrew means the one who is opposed, on the other side, and different from all others. Abraham was a solitary believer in a sea of idolatry.

Perhaps this is why the second person to be called a Hebrew is Joseph.4 A nice Hebrew boy ends up in Egypt, the decadent land of the Pharaohs, where people and the celestial spheres are worshipped instead of G‑d; a lone teenager with outlandish Hebrew beliefs from the far side, in the strongest society of his day. Joseph did not cave in to the pressures. He stood firm in the faith of his ancestors and ultimately rose to the top of Egyptian society, until he was second to Pharaoh himself. In fact, it was after the wife of Potiphar had tried to tempt him into sinning, and he withstood the temptations, that he is first referred to as an Ivri—for then he showed that he was a faithful bearer of the contrary tradition of Adam, Noah, Shem, Eber, and Abraham.

So who are the Hebrews today?

The Jewish people, who after over 3,000 years still cling to their peculiar beliefs and are not swayed by the passing fancies of pop culture, are the same contrary people as their ancestors—the Hebrews of old.

1. Genesis 14:13.
2. Bereishit Rabbah 42:8,
3. While the other languages developed after the dispersion which followed the building of the Tower of Babel, Hebrew preceded them all. Perhaps it is etymologically related to the word עבר-past, since it is a language from the past.
4. Genesis 39:14.
Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for
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Discussion (34)
October 3, 2014
What color were the hebrews,do anybody really know?
September 8, 2014
The greeks and Romans gave us the title jews because Judah was the prominent tribe of the nation of Ysrael. We are Hebrews because our forebears were Hebrews or Ivri/Ibrei/Ibri.
August 4, 2014
Jews? Hebrews?
Are these words used to mean the same? Some say the name Jews came from the tribe of Judah which came after Abraham who was in my thoughts a Gentile and not an Israelite. There was no Israel when Abraham came from the other side so he cannot be a Jew..........Help???
Evie Windham
May 5, 2014
Unfortunately even religion and god himself today falls in the realm of politics. So, when one wants to tell the truth about what transpired then, it has to make it function of now. Thus, the explanations become ambiguous and nebulous at best. I suggest reading the old bible for some commonalities and extracting dates of historical events to establish chronology of sequences of events. Bible is a collection of wonderful books with satisfying and uplifting words that stretches the wings of love to man kinds.
April 11, 2013
Everyone is an Expert
I get upset to be told what I should be calling myself. Now we allow people of color to say what is politically correct for this time, and accept it, so we don't say mulatto anymore or colored or even Afro-American if not desiring that.
I am Jewish. I have to have some so-called Christians(not really or they'd not be arguing rather than evangelizing) that I must be called Hebrew. I know American Jews and Israeli Jews, Hebrew being the National Language of Israel. That is my choice so can't understand why many I come across are so anti-semitic, not even knowing what that word means either. I look things up, and have done many years of Bible Study. The Bible was written 2,000 years ago. There are some different interpretations today so that's why it's called in many cases the Living Bible. We have heritages from way way back we inherited, and have desires to be referred to in Today's World. Too many say Palestine, and act like there is no Israel. I was given Golda for a Hebrew name.
January 28, 2013
Modern Day Israel vs. Neolithic Jericho?
Is modern day Israel far worse then the neolithic Jericho?

People tell me the only place on earth not to travel to is Israel, that it is the worse place ever. I compared the bible stories to all I could learn about Israel, and I am in shock at what I learned. And who's to say that it isn't a made up g-d by Abraham. Just like the god of fertility of Babylon? That's why Hagar the wife of Abraham had them thrown out of their camp.
Thomas White
December 20, 2012
The word "Jew" (in Hebrew, "Yehudi") is derived from the name Judah, which was the name of one of Jacob's twelve sons. Judah was the ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel, which was named after him. Likewise, the word Judaism literally means "Judah-ism," that is, the religion of the Yehudim. Other sources, however, say that the word "Yehudim" means "People of G-d," because the first three letters of "Yehudah" are the same as the first three letters of G-d's four-letter name.
andre johnson
December 4, 2012
To Anon in San Diego
There is a big world out there other than USA. In many languages the Jews are still referred to as Hebrew until this very day. For example, Russian. And there are others. The names Hebrew, Jew and Israelite are all currently used to refer to the same nation.
Abraham McCord
North London
December 4, 2012
(Ok.....this part I get), "The first person to be called a Hebrew was Abraham and the name commonly refers to his descendants (Ok I know this much), known as the Jewish people (where does it say this anywhere?)
San Diego
October 10, 2012
Hebrew/Jew, there are no historical facts that they ever existed...this is all biblical stories. Research "Rashi" and "Habiru".
Lithonia, Goergia
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